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The Imagination, the Labor, and You

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 10:45 PM

Part II: Labor, process, and six principles to get you going, picking up on a topic started in the May issue.

By Peter P. Jacobi

We continue with the content of a talk for writers I recently gave, dealing with writing as process. I titled that talk "The Imagination, the Labor, and You." In Part I the focus was on imagination, from which come idea generation, idea conceptualization, and idea materialization.


This month we move forward to and through labor.

And that does not mean you're ready to write. Not yet.

Gorgeous, facile writer though you may be, what exactly do you have at this point to put to paper or screen? Do you have a "what?" Now, what is a "what?" It is the body of information that should be at your fingertips as you pound your computer. The "what" is facts, details, stats, observations, feelings, the very essences of what you're going to write. For your story or article or essay, you need to gather information, maybe via observation. Maybe via participation. Maybe via interviewing. Maybe via research, studying, reading, searching. Maybe via several or all of these.

My view is: regardless of how well you write, if you don't have the concrete substance, the concrete "what" of your subject, you're in trouble. Writing skill will profit you nothing or next to it. Without the "what," there is no "how." Without solid matter, manner will fail you. You are only as good as the goods you've gathered for yourself. Yes, eventually you'll have to prove yourself as a writer, by the way you verbalize those gather goods, but the successful writer is, prior to that, the successful gatherer. There must be seeds to plant before your masterpiece can bloom.

Gathering the seeds, gathering the ingredients for what you are about to write involves the hard labor of reporting and research. The labor then continues as you consider and determine how to use your collected matter, how to put it into a framework, a structure, an architecture. It's much easier to know where you are going with words if, in preparation, you decide on a logical start-to-finish order. I trust you know how vital, how time saving, how nerve saving, how nail saving it is to nail down direction before you set the words to flowing. The method you choose depends on what you have at your disposal and what you want to accomplish, and for whom and why. But have a structure. Put labor into it.

Six Principles

Ah, but now you face either what you've been waiting to get your teeth into or what you've managed to avoid through prolonging the preparatory thinking and labor: WRITING.

Writing is the reason for everything done up to now. There is so much I want, I need, I could, I probably should tell you about writing. How to do it? How to help yourself get better? But here are six principles that should help.

Principle #1: My A-B-C-C Principle

A: Be accurate

Work with the best, most carefully sought out and checked material possible. Readers want and tend to trust the writers they turn to. Don't shake their trust. And speaking of accuracy: correct spelling and punctuation and solid grammar don't hurt.

B: Be brief

Don't waste words. Say what needs to be said as succinctly as possible. And that's not easy. As Toni Morrison put it, "It's harder to write less and make it more." But that's for you to accomplish. You must make every word count, make every moment the reader agrees to spend with you worthwhile.

The first C: Be clear

Sure, catchy and eloquent writing you should aim for, but such is of no importance if, from the start, from the very first words, you're not clear, if you're not making sense. The reader must understand your language and grasp your meaning without you giving him or her fits.

The second C: Be complete

Make sure the five W's and the H -- the who, what, where, when, why, and how -- have been taken care of. Make sure that no informational or contextual puzzles are likely to crop up. Granted, it is virtually impossible for a writer to be informationally complete; there's never room enough to say everything that might be said about your topic, particularly in a time such as now when brevity has become increasingly sought after. But you must strive, then, to be atmospherically complete, meaning that you've selected out of your collected body of knowledge and then put into your manuscript the most important, the most interesting, the most meaningful details, those that will give your reader an atmosphere of completeness, of having been provided all that was necessary and desirable to be read.

My accuracy-brevity-clarity-completeness principle: it is critical. Remind yourself of Stephen King's view: "Writing is telepathy. The value of writing comes in your ability to communicate stories and ideas to the reader." For that to happen, he says, "The greatest vocabulary or the most poetic prose is not as important as an ability to communicate and make the reader feel what you want him or her to feel."

Principle #2: Strive for Flow

From sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, idea to idea, let there be linearity and linkage. A "Hey, where am I?" reaction from your reader threatens disaster, a communication meltdown. Your reader needs to know at every moment where he or she is, has been, and is likely to go to. Help yourself by reading everything you write aloud. The eyes allow themselves to be fooled; the ears far less so. Pair eyes and ears for maximum impact on your copy.

Principle #3: Be Conversational

Strive for a conversational quality in your writing, writing of a more relaxed, informal character, the sort we're used to hearing 'round and about us, the kind we tend to share when chatting with someone else. Conversational copy makes readers more comfortable. Its rhythm is familiar. It song is accessible.

Principle #4: Be Actively Graphic

By that, I mean use a bustling, things-happening approach wherever you can make it so. I mean writing that moves, that thrusts, that smells the roses, that dances or sighs or plays or struggles. I mean writing that records narrative or trend of thought, that describes scene or person or creature, that evokes the senses.

Principle #5: Be Authentic

When we sit down to read anything, we seek authenticity, material, and language that ring true. Even when we wallow in fantasy, we usually ask for plausibility, for the possible within the impossible. Another way of saying this is: Be honest in the way you prepare your story, the way you approach it, the way you verbalize it. Don't get fussy. Don't overdo. Don't inflate. Just treat what you have with respect. Offer truth in packaging.

Principle #6: Locate, Nourish, and Use Voice

As Oscar Wilde put it: "Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." Voice is a writer's signature. It gives the reader a sense of who you are. It identifies you through the way you perceive things and the way you give them life. Voice brings to mind personality, individuality. It is the YOU in your art. It separates what and how you write from that of others. I want you to have a YOU and to be that YOU. Find your voice. Imbue your writing with it.

And now the writing process nears an end. Just one more matter remains. It is far from insignificant and involves more labor: editing and rewriting. Here is the refining of your product, your precious document by means of reconsiderations and revisions and last edits. It is you making sure you've done your very best. It's you giving yourself an opportunity to rethink and act thereupon. If possible, separate your act of writing and your act of final editing. Time in between is likely to make you a more perceptive reader, able more easily to recognize problems. By doing it all too quickly, those problems might escape you. You're so close to what you've done. I urge separation, if possible.

Finally, know when to stop. Nothing will ever be perfect. The time arrives when you must tell yourself: "This is it. I must move on." Do that. Move on.

(I finished my lesson in process with some pep talk. However, since I've more than used up my space for this issue, I'll save that for another occasion. But do think of yourself as important, as someone special. You really should.)

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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